Singer-songwriter Tom T. Hall recorded “God Came Through Bellville, Georgia” about a certain depot where passenger trains haven’t stopped in decades. But 580 riders are expected to board the SAM Shortline Excursion Train there Saturday during the June installment of the yearlong Evans County Centennial Celebration.
The depot, built in the 1890s and owned today by the city of Bellville, will be at the center of Bellville Railroad Day from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. Besides the train coming through, the event features tours of the depot, a walk-by tour of homes and displays of antique autos, tractors and equipment. Exhibits in the Bellville Warehouse will include a millinery shop and period replicas of a country store and an old home place. The Backroads Band and other local talent will provide entertainment.
“So Bellville will be buzzing with activity,” said Claxton-Evans County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Tammi Rogers Hall, not to be confused with Tom T.
Bellville is four miles west of downtown Claxton at the intersection of Georgia highways 169 and 292. Parking will be available in the Pinewood Christian Academy area, with shuttle service to the Bellville Depot.
Two 90-minute excursions on the SAM Shortline, with its vintage 1949 passenger cars, are scheduled to depart at 10 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., but if you haven’t already bought your tickets, it’s probably too late. Ticket sales had been slated to continue through this week, but all 290 seats on each excursion were booked by Friday afternoon.
Willing riders snapped them up a $25 for coach and $50 per ticket for the premium car. Some seats could become available through cancellations, Hall said.
Regular passenger train service through Evans County ceased more than half a century ago. But the four towns – in line from east to west Daisy, Claxton, Hagan and Bellville – all once had active depots on what was originally the Savannah and Western Railroad, said Bellville resident and local historian Pharris Johnson.
The railroad spurred growth, said Johnson, who noted that the population of Tattnall County doubled between 1890 and 1900, the decade after the tracks were laid. Evans County was formed from portions of Tattnall and Bulloch counties in 1914, and the western portion around Bellville was previously in Tattnall.
“Agricultural products could be shipped – cotton, turpentine, lumber – and it really opened up this part of Georgia, when the railroad came through, to population growth,” Johnson said.
Johnson, a retired Air Force colonel and college administrator, is the author of several books on local and regional history and architecture, including “Bellville, Georgia: The First Hundred Years,” published in 1996.
He and other members of the Centennial Steering Committee have contributed to a new Evans County volume of the “Images of America” series, due out later this month, and The Claxton Enterprise is also preparing an Evans County centennial publication.
The 1890s Savannah and Western Railroad gave way to other railroad ownerships and identities. One later name for the line was the Savannah, Americus and Montgomery Railroad, whose initials have been adopted by the SAM Shortline, an excursion train based in Cordele and operated by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. The name, according to SAM promotional materials, also honors Col. Samuel Hugh Hawkins, an early leader of the Savannah, Americus and Montgomery.
The Southwest Georgia Railroad Excursion Authority owns the passenger cars; the Heart of Georgia Railroad owns and operates the engine. For the Bellville excursions, through Evans County to the Canoochee River trestle at the Bryan County line and back, the train will travel over tracks of the Georgia Central Railroad, with its cooperation.
The trips will be narrated by local volunteers providing Evans County historical information along the way.
The Evans County Centennial Steering Committee has planned activities each month, combining some with annual community events.
A driving tour of homes and landmarks is scheduled for July 20 through Aug. 2. Booklets with maps with be provided and tour sites identified with signs.
The main event, “A Tribute to Evans County’s First 100 Years” is scheduled for 2 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 10, beginning in the Joyce NeSmith Auditorium, followed by cake and punch on the courthouse lawn.
A Centennial Parade through downtown Claxton is slated for Aug. 16 at 10 a.m.
A calendar of events is available at http://claxtonevanschamber.com.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.